New Nation, New Alphabet: Azerbaijani Children’s Books in the 1990’s

pages [27-28], Cotsen 7654952

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Azerbaijan (once again) declared itself an independent country.1 The image featured above is from a book published just a year later: Älifba (Baku: “Maarif” Näşriyyatı, 1992). It appropriately reflects both the diversity and optimism of the new nation: vignettes of friendly and modern workers separate the National Museum of Azerbaijani Literature in the bustling capital of Baku on the left from a vibrant vista of forest, farmland, and the looming Caucasus Mountains on the right. But Azerbaijani children’s books published during the new nation’s early years reveal more than national characteristics and pride. In their pictures and stories, and even in the characters of the words themselves, they serve to showcase a national identity in transition.

Perhaps the most significant way that Azerbaijani children’s literature contributed to this identity shaping project is by being the very vehicle which would deliver a new alphabet to millions of Azerbaijani children. Just four days after declaring independence on December 21st, 1991, the Azerbaijani Parliament voted to adopt a Latin script for the Azerbaijani language, abandoning the Cyrillic script which had been in use for the last fifty two years. The impetus for this far reaching and momentous change has deeper roots in a history of script changes imposed by Soviet authorities in the first half of the 20th century. Put succinctly by Lynley Hatcher:

After the Soviet Union incorporated Azerbaijan as a republic in 1920, the Soviets initiated a script shift from Arabic to Latin to divide the nation from Iran and its Muslim roots. A decade later, the Soviets forced another shift from the Latin to the Cyrillic script to alienate Azerbaijan and the Turkic republics from Turkey and from each other. Today, after independence in 1991, the pendulum has swung back in favor of the Latin script (Hatcher, p.106).

The First Turcological Congress convened in Baku in 1926 (with representatives from both the new Turkic Soviet Socialist Republics and Turkey).2 Representatives overwhelmingly agreed to adopt modified Latin scripts for Turkic languages, seeking increased literacy and a separation from the associations of Arabic script with the Muslim religion (thus satisfying Soviet authorities). But in 1939, Joseph Stalin changed the policy again. Turkic languages were Cyrillicized in order to distance Soviet Turkic people from a pan-Turkish identity and facilitate the acquisition of the Russian language (and culture).3 But after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Azerbaijan (and other newly independent Turkic nations) finally had the freedom to ask: what kind of identity do we want our language to represent? Azerbaijan (and Turkmenistan) chose the arduous but self determined path of Latinisation, firmly associated with the republic of Turkey. Yet Azerbaijan also utilized this script shift as an opportunity to demonstrate its unique national identity.

Älifba, full title: Älifba1 sinif üçün därslik (Alphabet: a textbook for the first year), was one of the first Azerbaijani language instruction course books teaching the post-independence adoption of Latin script for the Azerbaijani language (Sepehri, p.1). It’s front wrapper alone reveals one of the most unique aspects of the Azerbaijani language and its script:

Front wrapper, Cotsen 7654952

The first character in the title might be totally unfamiliar to many English speaking readers: “ə”. Transliterated above as Älifba (with an Ä “A-umlaut”), this initial character resembles an inverted “e”. According to IPA standards this character denotes a “schwa” (the mid central vowel sound that is usually unstressed and toneless: think the “a” in “about” or the “u” in “supply”). But in Azerbaijani, the character represents a vowel sound closer to the “a” in “cat” or the “ae” in “archaeology”. Historically this sound was represented in English with the “ash” character (æ), little used today but to purposely invoke archaism (often liturgical).4 Perhaps even more confusingly (sorry), the toneless “schwa” sound is the most common vowel sound in English (though we do not use the “ə” character to represent it), while the ash (æ) vowel sound represented by “ə” is the most common vowel sound in Azerbaijani!

In Azerbaijan, this character has a history of continued use through the script changes of the 20th century demonstrating a nationally unifying representation of Azerbaijani identity. During the most current script change in 1991, Ä “A-umlaut” was briefly considered because it more closely aligns with Turkish letter encoding and can be found in most character sets. But putting two dots above your most commonly occurring vowel proved cumbersome for the written language (as opposed to its typed version). So one year later “ə” was reintroduced. Essentially then, the character “ə” has been used in each of the three script changes initiated since the replacement of Arabic script: initially with the first Latin script introduced in 1926, carried through Cyrillization from 1938-1991, and maintained as a distinct character differentiating the Azerbaijani alphabet from “standard” Turkish. Along with the characters “q” and “x”, “ə” represents a phoneme in Azerbaijani that distinguish the alphabet and language from the “standard” Turkish alphabet. This gives the alphabet itself a uniquely Azerbaijani character (the character ğ is pronounced differently for Azerbaijani and Turkish).

Yet Cyrillic script has left a lasting mark on Azerbaijan. Considering that this script was in use for most of the 20th century, Cyrillic letters dominate not only much of the country’s literature but much of its written infrastructure as well. Even after the official shift to Latin script in 1991, children’s book publishers like Gänclik (Ҝәнҹлик) were still producing Cyrillic script children’s books the following year:

Page [14], a “gəmi” (ship) from Işılda-böcak (Bakı : Gänclik, 1992) . Cotsen: 7494222

Though some children’s book publishers seemed initially reluctant to begin the change to Latin script, Azerbaijani children’s books would be ultimately instrumental for facilitating this script shift. Two years after the publication of Işılda-böcak, Gänclik was producing titles like Gülçiçäk (based on a Tatar folk tale) in Latin script:

front wrapper, Gülçiçäk: Tatar xalq nağılları (Bakı : Gänclik, 1994). Cotsen: 7658006

In this same publication Gänclik didactically contributed to the transition towards Latin script by providing a transliteration table for its young readers:

back wrapper. Cotsen: 7658006

Through the 1990’s and early 2000’s Cyrillic script was still in use for newspapers, shops, and restaurants. Only in 2001 did then president Heydar Aliyev declare “a mandatory shift from the Cyrillic to the Latin alphabet” (Hatcher, p.113). The transition has progressed slowly. The two scripts have effectively existed side by side and as a result many Azerbaijanis are literate in both. But as the country and its language transition into the 21st century, Cyrillic script (and its associations with a Russified/Soviet identity) has become increasingly marginalized. As Azerbaijani’s exercise their independence, the unique representation of their language reflects a transition to a new independent identity.

Though seemingly unimportant and relegated to “mere” children’s instruction, alphabets are demonstrably powerful political tools which impact the identities of those who use them (alphabets influence all of us who are literate through subtle historical and social associations). Like in all other countries the story of Azerbaijan’s alphabet reflects the history of its identity (whether self determined or imposed). Few other countries (perhaps only Turkmenistan, another former “Turkic” Soviet state) have been subject to such rapid and far reaching script changes as Azerbaijan. This unique fluctuation is fertile ground for researching how alphabets and children’s literature are utilized for identity formation and the propagandizing of certain associations.

page [10], the canavar (wolf) from the Gülçiçäk folk tale, Cotsen 7658006


Hatcher, Linley. Script change in Azerbaijan: acts of identity. International Journal of the Sociology of Language, 2008(192).

Sepehri, Abazar. An Azerbaijani Reader In the New Alphabet. Austin, Texas: A. Sepehri, 1994.


  1. To learn more about the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic’s brief independence during the Russian Civil War and the early history of the Azerbaijan Soviet Socialist Republic see my other blog post: Picturing Progress.
  2. Contrary to popular belief, Turkey was not the first country to institute a Latin script for a Turkish language. It would not adopt Latin script until 1928.
  3. Other minority identities within the Soviet Union that were already perceived as sufficiently Russified or Western would not see their languages Cyrillicized. Conspicuously, the very distinct scripts of Azerbaijan’s neighbors: Georgia and Armenia were never altered by Soviet authorities.
  4. For those interested in an even deeper history of alphabets: the grapheme “æ” takes its name “ash” or “æsch” from the even earlier Anglo-Saxon futhorc rune “ᚫ” denoting the same sound (and whose name means literary “ash tree” which the rune superficially resembles).